Sunday, May 21, 2006

A Hidden Message from the Past: Maillardet's Automaton (1800)

Another childhood story resurrected: this time, it involved a mechanical doll with a secret message, hidden for centuries. Legend had it that the scribe had been sitting there for ages, a pen in her hand, frozen in time.

It seems that one day, after cleaning it, someone had found and triggered the lost mechanism - and voila, the message was released! It was a small poem and a note related to its creator, forgotten after so many centuries.

That's all Dad could remember. So he told us the story, and the years went by, and one day the memory woke up and reappeared, like the message concealed in the doll.

And sure enough, somewhere in the Internet, the key to the mystery was waiting. I found it in a website to a small museum in Pennsylvania: the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. According to it, Maillardot only made only one other Automaton that could write; it wrote in Chinese and was made for the Emperor of China as a gift from King George III of England. Whatever became of it, I wonder?

You can read the entire fabulous story (and see some pictures) here. And the poem, of course:

A young child whom zeal guides,
Of your favors solicits the price,
And obtains, don't be surprised,
The gift of pleasing you, a child to these wonders.

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